Programmable Machine (Jacquard Loom)

The Jacquard Loom is a seminal invention in the history of modern computers. Automation technology existed long before the loom but the automation was simple repetition. For example, pull the loom up, push a thread through, pull the loom down, and push another thread through then repeat. Different color threads might be used on different spools to create basic stripes but the looms were limited in their inability to actively change.

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Jacquard Loom with punch cards

The Jacquard Loom is inherently different. It used a series of punchcards to control the threads. Each card pushed through a different pattern. When combined, the output fabric left elaborate patterns.

The Jacquard Loom established that the steps an automation machine took need not be a simple repetition but might, instead, but a long and complex series of instructions.

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Jacquard Loom doing its thing

Jacquard’s programmable loom wove different patterns, just like modern computer chips run different instructions in a program. A quick clarification: even though you do not see it, your computer has a central brain that performs instructions depending upon the data set to it. It is like an electronic loom except it outputs electrical signals rather than controlling the threads of a loom. Where a loom might have a few hundred threads, most computer chips have the electronic equivalent of hundreds of millions or even billions.

However, the loom was not simply an interesting science experiment. It vastly decreased the price of patterned fabrics.

Napoleon granted a patent to the city of Lyon, where he lived, and awarded Jacquard a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs plus a 50 franc royalty for each loom purchased and used between 1805 and 1811. Jacquard did well but the government seems to have done better.

Early computers used punched-out cards that looked eerily similar to that used by Jacquard. Where his loom used the punched-out patterns to control a loom, the computer punch-cards controlled the flow of electricity through a computer, feeding it both programs and data to process.

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Jacquard Loom control card
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Computer punch card

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